Thursday, May 31, 2012

My new relationship with death

I heard an author (I didn't catch his name) on the radio yesterday talking about death, and his perspective on it since he'd been diagnosed with cancer. He said he thought that until we experience death in a very real and personal way, death is more of an abstract concept to us. I can say that what he said rings very true to me. My own relationship with death has changed dramatically in the last five months. This shows itself in the following ways:

1. My reaction to the deaths of strangers. Yesterday here in Seattle, a man went on a rampage and killed five people (another is in critical condition and is not expected to survive). I did not know any of the victims or their immedate families. But I sure as hell have a window into what they're going through today and will be going through for months (years) to come. That has given me a whole new empathy for those who experience the terrible, sudden, and utterly senseless loss of a loved one. And news like this affects in me in ways it never did before.

2. My feelings about my own mortality. Like any healthy person, I have a strong sense of survival. I do not want to die, nor have I ever seriously felt differently, not even in the wake of Aimee's death. But, there have definistely been days since then when I wasn't so sure I'd fight death off if faced with it. We all know life can be incredibly difficult and cruel at times, and the longer I'm alive and the more I see the more true I realize that assessment of our world is. There are days when I most certainly look forward to not being here anymore, and instead being in the afterlife promised to me, reunited with those I've lost and miss.

3. How I live while I'm still alive. There's a bit of a paradox here. I want to be less restrained in how I live. I want to do more things, show more emotions, help more people, travel to new places, and in general maximize the experience of being alive. On the other hand, I find myself becoming increasingly cautious in some ways. My poor little girl has already lost her mother, and I can't imagine what it would mean to her if she lost me while she is still young (a child). I feel an immense responsibility to stay alive for her sake. Yes, I felt that before, but there was always Aimee as a 'backup'. Now there's just me. I know there are still people to love Rowan and care for her, and they would do a great job. But I STRONGLY believe she should have a parent in her life as long as possible. Just as I've said repeatedly no one (not even I) can be her mommy, no one else can be me for her. I have to be here to be her daddy.

All of which means I've decided to pass on my dream of learning to ride a motorcycle.

In all seriousness, I never spent much time praying for my own personal safety (except right before I went skydiving a few years ago) until recently. Now I do so frequently, for Rowan's sake.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Dilemma - I'd like advice

OK, so I have this dilemma...

For whatever reason, I have been thinking a LOT about how I want to recognize the one-year anniversary of Aimee's death, even though it's still almost seven months away. I don't know why I have this preoccupation, but it's been going on for 5-6 weeks now. And I think I've settled on what I want to do, but I'm still having some doubts.

I think I want to go back to Florida, charter a boat to take me out to where Aimee died, and scatter some flowers out onto the water.

Now, the mere thought of setting foot in Florida makes me uncomfortable. Thinking of going back to The Keys makes me sick and nauseous beyond belief. And the idea of sitting in a boat in the water right where Aimee lost her life gives me a primal fear I can't even describe. And yet, this seems to be where my gut is leading me to go.

Initially I thought that if I took such a trip, I'd want to do it alone. But after thinking about it I realized that having family along (Aimee's and mine) wouldn't be a bad thing at all (if they wanted to be there). I sent everyone in the family an email a day or so ago, and a dialog on the subject has ensued (out of respect for their privacy I won't share what everyone's thoughts are, but the discussion has been VERY positive).

The bottom line is, I'm torn. I HATE the idea of going back there, but I have such a strong desire to do so. It's still a long ways away, so I know that no matter what I decide, I may very well feel very differently months from now. But since we're talking about mid-December, I'd rather make arrangements sooner rather than later before the costs of making the trip get too high.

Does anyone have any insight they'd like to offer?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Practicing what I preach

As most of you probably know, Aimee's death was preceded by almost exactly a year by her father's. Terry had been battling cancer, and on December 19 of 2010, he passed away. Aimee was devastated, although ever the caretaker, she put off her own grief for a long time to help others with theirs. But by last fall, that was starting to shift.
Aimee and her dad Terry in October 2010

During the fall of 2010, we had moved Aimee's parents out to Washington State from Indiana so we (she) could be closer and help them more through her father's illness. Those last few months of Terry's life were filled with Aimee taking care of him. A year later, as we moved into the fall of 2011, Aimee was flooded with memories of taking care of her dad and the time they'd spent together that previous fall, and she was filled with a deep sadness over his passing. She had been very close to her father, and his loss was hard for her to bear.

When she would get particularly sad, I used to try and do what I could to comfort her. Here is one of the things I used to say to her:
"The separation from your father seems so long now, in the context of the rest of your life. But also remember that in the context of eternity, this time away from him is more like the blink of an eye. When you're reunited in heaven, you'll never be apart again, and this brief time will seem so short, so insignificant compared to that. Remember any given day that was really bad when you were 5 years old? Probably not. That's how this will feel then. I know it doesn't take away the pain you feel, but I hope it offers some comfort that it's only temporary, and your time with him will be eternal."
I knew these words didn't offer much comfort at the time I said them, but I hoped that as time passed she would find some reassurance in them. Of course, I had no idea that her earthly separation from her father would last only a few short months more, and that her reunification with him was imminent.

Now comes the big question: can I practice what I preached?

I am now going through a similar situation as Aimee was - earthly separation from one I loved dearly (and still do). I 'know' that compared to seeing her in eternity, this separation now will seem like a blink of an eye, but can I really find any comfort in that when all I can really see or really know is the next 30 or so years I expect to live?

And here's the other really hard part for me to cope with. One of the great joys in having a spouse is having someone to share your life with. Someone who will be a support to you in times of trouble, and encourage you when things are rough. Sure, I will see Aimee again in heaven but that doesn't do me much good for the rest of THIS life, does it? And I think THAT'S the key point I missed when I was trying to console Aimee. It's not that she wouldn't ever see her father again, it's that when she needed him here in this life to encourage her or comfort her, he wouldn't be here. There is nothing anyone could do or say that would have changed that for her. And the same goes for me now (and Aimee's other loved ones).

So I think I will have a hard time practicing what I preach, because I understand better how the loss really impacts you.

(PS: I SINCERELY hope and pray that unlike Aimee with her father, I am not too soon reunited with her! As much as I miss Aimee, I have a beautiful little girl to raise, and I need to be there for her for a long time.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

At least I have no regrets

I don't think I have to start this post by saying that losing Aimee has been the most terrible thing I've ever gone through. If you've been following this blog, I think you get that by now. (If you haven't been and you just stumbled on this post, then may I suggest you start by reading this post first.)

No, this post is not about that. This post is about regrets. Or in this case, how at least I don't have any in regards to Aimee. I know many times when we lose someone close there may have been unresolved conflicts or harsh words we wish we could have back. Maybe the regret is simply that we feel like we didn't express our love enough, or show our appreciation enough, or value them as much as we should have when they were here.
Aimee and I celebrating our first
anniversary a month early in
Victoria, BC. We jokingly told
people we celebrated early because
we weren't sure we'd actually make
it to a whole year.

I am extremely blessed to be able to say that I do not have any of those regrets.

I told Aimee OFTEN how much I loved her. I told her that she was an incredible wife and mother, and that I'd won the marriage lottery when I married her. I explained to her on at least a weekly basis that she fulfilled all my needs and wants and that I'd walk to the ends of the earth for her because of it. And she knew damn well that I meant it. I bought her flowers (on days other than her birthday or Valentine's Day), took her out on dates, and left notes in her car while she was at work or in her purse to find later. I tried hard to be romantic, because I wanted to make her as happy as she made me.

Why did I do all of this? Because she WAS amazing, and because she SHOWED ME by her example how to be a great spouse. In other words, she modeled the type of relationship she wanted, and I was lucky enough to get the hint.

The point of this post isn't to brag about how great at being married we were (though we WERE). The point is to say that when Aimee died, at least I wasn't forced to say "I wish I'd..."
  • been more loving,
  • appreciated her more,
  • told her I loved her,
  • been nicer to her,
  • helped her more around the house,
  • kissed her goodbye.
Two days before her accident, she and Donna left the vacation house to go to the store. She started to leave without giving me a kiss, but I caught up with her right outside the front door and said, "Hey, you aren't leaving without a kiss goodbye, are you?" She smiled and apologized and kissed me. Shortly afterwards, we had the following text message exchange, the last one we'd ever have:

Aimee: "I love you, honey. I am so sorry I forgot to smooch you goodbye. I didn't think you cared but I like it that you do. :)"
Me: ":) I do."

And so one thing I'll always be glad for is that when I saw her that last time at Jacobs Aquatic Center, I kissed her through the chain link fence. It wasn't an easy feat, but I can't tell you how much that would hurt now if I had passed on that last kiss.

No regrets.

I don't want to sound preachy or lecture. I certainly don't want to sound like I'm better than anyone else or that our marriage was all roses and butterflies and everyone else's stinks. That's not at all what I'm trying to say. I am simply trying to encourage everyone who reads this to remember that life is short, and relationships are precious, so value the loved ones in your life, not only in your heart, but with your words and deeds. Love is not just an emotion, but it is also a verb. Love not expressed isn't really much of a love at all.

Don't ever risk being left with regrets.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

New definition of a 'good' day

Everything is my life now is viewed through a lens of grief - a filter that makes everything a little darker, and takes away at least some of the joy. Activities that used to be amazingly fun are now just a way to slightly brighten a day filled with feelings of loss and sadness. But don't get me wrong - those mood lifts are very important. And, I am determined to model for Rowan a sense that even in the midst of huge loss, life goes on and can have joy and fun in it.

Even if I don't actually feel much joy or have a lot of fun.

So keeping that in mind, I have a new definition of a 'good' day. And today was one of those.

Today was Rowan's preschool's Spring Fair. It's a day filled with games and activities, and it's their biggest fundraiser of the year. It started at 11, so Rowan and I slept in, had waffles for breakfast, and got ready at a nice, easy pace. The weather was perfect, and the fair itself was fun. I even won tickets to the Seattle Children's Theater in the raffle.

Afterwards we spent some time playing at home, then I got the lawn mowed, a load of laundry done, and a host of other projects that contributed to much needed progress on getting my house in order. Finally, our neighbor invited us over for some BBQ and fun with a couple of other parents and their kids, completing the day-long process of thoroughly tuckering Rowan out. Once I got her in bed, I sat down with a drink and my laptop to write this post. I got a lot of stuff accomplished today, and Rowan had a lot of fun.

It was a good day.

Yes, I felt sadness that hit me MANY times, especially at the Spring Fair, as I imagined Aimee running around doing stuff with Rowan. I remembered that sweet energy she brought to things like this where she mingled with other moms and made friends and guided Rowan through activity after activity making sure she had fun while behaving herself. I bumbled through it fine, Rowan still had fun and behaved herslf, but Aimee did it with such grace and sweetness I simply don't have. I missed her a lot.

I also missed her at dinner (I often do), and missed her seeing all that I'd gotten done. She'd have said something incredibly sweet to show her appreciation, and I most likely would have been rewarded with a big hug and a kiss (yeah, I miss those too!).

So yeah, today was a good day, in my new normal. I sure do miss Aimee like crazy on days like this. But it IS possible to have something approaching a good day in this new life.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

I make a lousy mommy

I am not the only single father in the world. I wonder how well some of the others are faring? Do they figure out how to get their act together? Plan and prepare meals, clean the house, come up with fun, safe, and educational activities for the kid(s)? Get everyone fed, bathed, clothed and to school on time?

I may get there someday, but I'm not there yet.

Just in the last few days alone, look at some of my mishaps:

  • One day last week I forgot to feed Rowan before school (luckily she barely eats in the morning anyway, and they have snack time in the mornings at school)
  • For the second time in three days, I started to make French Toast only to realize I was out of eggs. Understandable the first time, but not so much the second.
  • I took Rowan to the park on a very warm, sunny day. Despite being reminded by my own mother to bring sunscreen (Rowan has very pale skin), I forgot it. Fortunately I DID remember it only a few blocks from home, and went back and got it. But if mom hadn't reminded me to begin with, I'd probably have forgotten it altogether.
  • When we arrived at the park, I realized how woefully under-prepared I was compared to other families. They had folding chairs to sit on (I own them, but didn't think to bring them), coolers with snacks, toys, etc. I brought one towel (they have water features for the kids to play in) and a bucket. I have all the other stuff, I just didn't think to bring it.
But it's bigger than that. I was in Costco and saw Q-Tips. And suddenly I realized I had NEVER cleaned out Rowan's ears. It's amazing she can hear anything at all.

Before Aimee's accident I would sometimes get Rowan dressed. There were times it was an adventure for me to figure out which clothes matched, but typically I did alright. But now that I am responsible for her hair too? I brush it in the morning, and by the time we get to the car, it looks like it did when she got out of bed. Once in a great while I'll actually manage to get a barrette in her hair to STAY there for more than 30 seconds. Hair/head bands? She's not having any of that, and I know part of the reason (or all) is because I can't put one on her head without pulling half of her hair out.

Should we even talk about how often Rowan gets a bath? Or her nails clipped? Or how overdue that child is for a haircut (I swear, I am taking her this weekend)? Nah, I'm already feeling inadequate enough.

"Hello, Domino's? Yeah, it's Pat
again. I'll take the usual."
Well, unless we talk about meals, and then I feel even worse. It doesn't help that Aimee took great pride in meal planning and preparing. She mapped out meals for the week based on foods that would give us a wide variety of things to eat, were of high nutritional value (she forced me to eat veggies), and well balanced. I don't have the time, energy, or creativity for that. I buy frozen or pre-prepared meals you can throw in the oven. And I feel really guilty for that, because I know how important good nutrition is for growing children and guys approaching middle age who really like their sweets and don't get enough exercise.

Speaking of food and trips to Costco, I was there late last week shopping and suddenly was hit with this overwhelming sadness. I was struggling to find meal options that I felt decent about and was just hit with how much I missed Aimee. Her efforts at meal planing were just one of a thousand ways her deep love for us manifested itself in a tangible way. She showed us how deeply she cared for us in so many things she did for us, and those constant expressions of love from her is something I miss so terribly now. 

Anyway, I know that the most important thing I bring to the table as a parent is to make sure Rowan knows I love her, and I'm confident I'm doing that well, if nothing else. But I so much want for Rowan to have more than just my love. I don't need to be the male version of Martha Stewart. But I would like to have my act together well enough to make sure her ears are cleaned out.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

One last day in the gauntlet from hell...

In an earlier post I talk about this 'gauntlet' of hard dates I had to get through: Aimee's birthday, Rowan's birthday, my and Aimee's anniversary, and Mothers Day. Three of the four of those has passed, with the anniversary date having been the hardest by far. The last one was today - Mothers Day.

Aimee and Rowan right after Rowan was
born. I'm pretty certain Aimee would
object to this picture being posted for the
world to see.
I remember the first Mothers Day that applied to Aimee. Rowan was only a few weeks old, and it seemed REALLY strange to both Aimee and I that we would actually celebrate the holiday with us being the parents and Aimee as a mother (we were slightly more accustomed to the idea by the time that Fathers Day rolled around). But luckily I hadn't been caught off guard, and I'd taken a few photos of Aimee and Rowan and created a collage through Snapfish that arrived just in time for Mothers Day. That was my first Mothers Day gift to Aimee.

We celebrated a total of four Mothers Days together, all of them good. Of course, like any husband trying to be a good one, I worked to celebrate Aimee as a mother and wife every day (I'm sure I fell short many, many days). But Aimee never fell short as a mom. Every time I see photos of Aimee and Rowan together, I am reminded of how much they each loved the other, and how Aimee never had an 'off' day as a mom (though I'm certain she felt otherwise). I feel constant sadness for Rowan's loss, and Mothers Day kind of emphasizes that to me. I have little doubt that as Rowan gets older, this holiday will get much harder for her as well, emphasizing for her that she doesn't have her mother.

And for me, in the long term, that will probably be the pain that'll be hardest to get past - Rowan's loss in all of this. The loss of a mother is so huge, especially at so young an age, but even for those who are older it can be a profoundly devastating experience. Take, for example, my friend Mollie, who lost her mother to cancer when she was 16. She says she felt so alone: "...granted I had my family, my father, sister and brother, but there is nothing that can ever really truly fill that void of not having a mom anymore." Wow.

And with Rowan being so young, I can't begin to imagine all the ways this will be thrown at her: mother-daughter teas, going to friends' houses for sleepovers where the mom of the house decorates or makes cookies or some such other cool mommy thing, shopping for clothes/prom dresses/jewelry, learning how to put make-up on (I dread that day!), and so on. My point is, she's so young and there is still so much she could have learned from her mother. Aimee was such a great teacher, and an incredible role model. So many of you who knew her have pointed what an amazing person Aimee was. We wanted Rowan to be like that also. Like I've said many times - I'll do the best I can, but I can never be her mommy.

(Read Mollie's blog post about her loss. It's very sweet and very poignant.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Going through the motions

Common activities in the Rhoads household prior to December 18:
  • Cleaning the house
  • Working in the yard
  • Playing with Rowan (reading, coloring, tea parties, etc)
  • Taking the dog to the park
  • Going for walks around the neighborhood
  • Planning fun things to do on weekends or for vacations

Common activities in the Rhoads household after December 18:
  • Cleaning the house
  • Working in the yard
  • Playing with Rowan (reading, coloring, tea parties, etc)
  • Taking the dog to the park
  • Going for walks around the neighborhood
  • Planning fun things to do on weekends or for vacations

Yeah, the two lists are exactly the same. In other words, we do the same stuff. Much of it is required, like cleaning, laundry, etc. Some of it is slightly less necessary, like the extent to which I play with Rowan or take the dog to the park. But all in all, the tasks I undertake or the things we do as a family have not significantly changed since Aimee's death.

What has changed is that now I often feel like I'm just going through the motions.

Don't get me wrong, I want to do all this stuff well. No, not necessarily cooking and cleaning. The raising a child and creating a great, nurturing home stuff, that part I want to do well. But while I love and adore my little girl with all my heart, the tasks themselves I approach with a lot less energy and joy than I used to.

I'm not supposed to be doing them alone, and I miss my partner terribly.

Sunday night Rowan and I went for a short walk in our neighborhood. As we neared the end, she ran ahead toward the house and I watched her running and thought, "this feels so empty, so devoid of the tranquil peace and comfort that activities like this had when our family was whole." You see, there was this wholesomeness to our lives, and almost idyllic quality to our family life. Husband and wife love each other dearly, work hard to make a happy home. They have a child who they also love dearly, and work hard to be great parents. Trials come their way - unemployment, death of a parent - but they pull together, support each other, and get through things with lots of faith and lots of love. Sounds like a 50's sitcom, doesn't it? Well, in a lot of ways, that was our life.

Until December 18.

I'm still trying to create the happy home for Rowan, trying to keep her life as stable, secure, and loving as I can. But for so many things I do, I feel like I'm going through the motions.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Blessing others through our trials

Two years ago tomorrow, I was called into a meeting with my then-boss and a rep from HR. I was informed that due to a restructure of our department, my position had been eliminated and that I was being laid off, effective in 30 days. Although I was pretty unhappy in my job at the time, I was not eager to hit the job market with the way it was back in 2010 (and of course it isn't a whole lot better today).

Turns out I was lucky or blessed or both - I was employed again after only five months (I met a LOT of people who'd been out of work a year or more). But I didn't do it on my own. I met a number of people who were very gracious with their time, and in some cases, their contacts. Ultimately, the job I found (where I am now) was sent to me by someone I'd met at a networking event. She saw it and thought I'd be a good fit, and sent it to me. That was my experience in the job market - people all in the same boat helping each other out.

Through that experience, I gained a real heart for people who were unemployed and trying to find a job. I continued attending networking events (and still do), but instead of looking for a job for me, I met people and tried to make connections for them. In most cases I don't know and may never know how it worked out, but I felt like I needed to pay forward what I'd received.

Last Thursday I was at a small gathering of friends (all met and networked through social media and then became friends in person), and one of the gals filled me in on a great story I'd been part of at the beginning. Six months ago I met a recruiter at a networking event (he was actually there by accident, having stopped into the club to have a drink and realized a networking event was going on), and it turned out his company WAS hiring. I ended up having a great conversation with him. Less than two minutes after walking away from him I ran into this gal, who I'd known for about a year. She'd just been laid off from her job and had showed up at this event at the spur of the moment (actually because I'd invited her earlier that day). What she was looking for fit what the recruiter I'd just met was hiring for. I introduced them to each other and left them to chat. So she was happy to tell me that they had hired her as a contractor, and she was in talks to join their staff permanently. It was a great feeling to see how trying to pay it forward had actually had a positive effect somewhere.

Now I am going through the death of my beloved Aimee. This kind of loss is a much greater and more personal loss than losing a job. But my desire to use my own experiences to help other people through their own situation is no less. And like when I was looking for a job, I have had a lot of people around me helping me and encouraging me. I (thankfully!) do not know many people suffering through this kind of grief, but through this blog I hope that I am reaching others out there who are, and that somehow reading my experiences is helpful to them. It's really the only way right now I know how to pay forward the support and love I've received and still receive.

So yes, I am at various points sad, angry, depressed, hopeless and more. But in the midst of this, I also feel a responsibility to try and help others. If there is to be good that comes from this, I feel it has to be good that I MAKE from it. I can choose to do nothing and get on with my life, but that would represent a wasted opportunity to try and make something beautiful out of something so terrible. And while people would probably understand if I did that, I would know that I could have done more.

And what kind of example would that be to set for Rowan?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Fine, then a wave of fury

Sunday was my and Aimee's sixth wedding anniversary (or would have been). Donna took Rowan the day before and kept her through Monday morning, taking her to school for me. It was a really nice gesture on her part, and before I get to my experience of the day, I just need to say what an incredible help she's been despite her own tremendous grief.

My beautiful girls
So Sunday morning I woke up and decided to spend the day just enjoying a quiet introspective day in Seattle. I visited the Fremont Market. I went to lunch and a couple of other parks. Then I came home, got the dog and took her to the park, then went out to dinner. It was really a nice day, devoid of any overly strong emotions. I even called my mom, who I knew was concerned for me, and told her that I was doing pretty well, all things considered.

About 8pm I started writing another post for this blog (which has since been deleted), when I suddenly just snapped. I don't know exactly what triggered it, but all of the sudden a rush of fury hit me so hard I felt blinded and started to lift my laptop in the air and smash it into the ground before I realized what I was about to do and set it down instead. Then I just started screaming, at one point yelling "WHY DID YOU DO THIS TO ME???" I don't know if I was talking to God or what, but I suddenly felt betrayed and furious and hurt and alone and scared. Then I started sobbing uncontrollably (I say uncontrollably because up to this point, I was always able to get myself under control pretty quickly when I'd cry - I HATE crying). I eventually calmed down, but found myself in the most morose depression I'd felt since the first few weeks after Aimee's death. And it hasn't really gone away, although spending time with Rowan Monday evening offered some respite. (I note with irony that it was just a few days ago in another post I said something about having not really been very angry since Aimee's death. Ha.)

I am big about justice. What is wrong must somehow be made right. That's why I work for nonprofits - I try to be a part of solutions for those who have somehow been wronged in life. But there's no making this right, not in this life. No matter what may or may not happen from a legal standpoint, there's no fixing this loss. No scenario where Rowan gets her mommy back or I get my lovely wife. No circumstances through which Donna gets her daughter, Justin his sister, or Aimee's many other friends, clients, etc get back what they've all lost. No matter what else happens in life, we have to go through this pain and loss.

And that makes me very, very angry.

PS. I saw my therapist on Monday afternoon, and one of the things we talked about is this blog, and why I write it. I'll share with you what I shared with her. It helps me immensely. I need this outlet, through writing, to help me through this. And the public nature of it helps me feel like I'm less alone in my pain. Additionally, I have heard from others how helpful this is to THEM, and that has become part of what drives me to share things that are VERY hard for me to share (like this post). Sharing things like that I was screaming and crying is exactly opposite my typical nature, but I believe that honest vulnerability is the only thing that will help me or anyone else reading it. No matter how hard it is sometimes.